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Dr. Stephen Ezzo

I spend a lot of time with your kids. And frankly, I’m a little worried. Before we get to that, though, a little context on why I became a pediatrician.

I am often asked why I chose pediatrics out of the many medical specialties. There were three main reasons: First, I had the good fortune of coming under the tutelage of two attending physicians in med school who revealed to me the joys of pediatrics (this is a very common occurrence in med school for all disciplines).

Apparently they saw something in me I was not aware of. Second, I always seemed to be more comfortable around young patients than adult ones. It provided the opportunity for my repressed comic to emerge as I attempted to put them at ease with an older person. I imagine this says something about my level of maturity.

Third, I will admit that I had a harder time being empathetic with adults than children. Adults often bring on their own diseases – it was at times difficult to connect with a three-pack-a-day, 40-year smoker who lamented his lung cancer. Children for the most part do not bring their illnesses upon themselves, and bring out the Good Samaritan in us. (However, if some of my teens continue to vape, they are at risk for suffering concussion, brought on by me smacking them upside their heads.)

So I’ve always had this Holden Caulfieldesque urge to shelter kids, to help them, to catch them as they come through the rye so they will not fall (apologies to J.D. Salinger). While in the office I try as much as I can to speak directly to them, so they can see me as less intimidating and understand that going to the doctor is part of life. But at the same time I need to remember they are just children, and they will do and say childish things. And that’s how it should be.

Being a child today is incredibly difficult. They are faced with so many things we rarely had to think about during our youth, several of them beyond our control. The constant social media attacks on how they should look, act, talk, eat and befriend. The push to get into “name” colleges starting earlier and earlier, coupled with a significant amount of their time expected to be spent in social endeavors outside of school.

Whatever happened to just good grades and school activities? And I don’t know about you, but I never imagined anyone coming into my wide-open high school with a gun or a knife. We settled our differences with our fists and shook hands afterward. In reality, it was a lot of posturing, very little fists and then handshakes.

With our protective arms continually being pried apart, what can we control to allow our kids to just be kids before they reach adulthood? One area comes to mind – outside activities.

The classic example of this is sports. I read an alarming statistic the other day where 70% of children in organized sports drop out by 13. Sports provide us benefits that few other activities can match. The camaraderie. The goal of working together toward something bigger than oneself. The lessons of humility, both in victory and defeat. Being exposed to all types of personalities. The unquestioned correlation between exercise/sport and health, both physical and mental, including academic performance.

So why the mass exodus from something we should be doing all we can to increase participation? The main reasons are stress and lack of enjoyment. Translation: parents and coaches. We all know stories of parents who live vicariously through their kid’s athletic achievement (why is it seldom academic achievement?), the coach who won’t let their players miss a few practices/games to go on a summer family vacation (sticking with the playing schedule is character-building, they will say), or the parent who knows more than the coaches/referees and doesn’t hesitate to let everyone else know.

Quick story: my younger brother coached his son’s basketball team during his grade school years. One season the league banned every single parent from the games for verbal abuse toward players, coaches and refs. He said it was the best year ever to coach – just the kids having fun without pressure and the coaches and refs not cringing with every decision or call made. I’m betting the kids probably couldn’t have told you their win-loss record at the end of the season.

In my 30 years of practice I have cared for many outstanding athletes, both at the high school and college level. I have had some win NCAA championships. Participating beyond that – playing at a professional level – has been extremely rare. I have also had more than my share of parents pressure me to clear their child from their injuries when they clearly weren’t ready.

News flash: you don’t have the next Tiger Woods, soccer’s Lionel Messi or skiing’s Mikaela Shiffrin. And if you push your kids hard enough your major achievement will be them resenting you for a long, long time. Let them realize success and failure in sports on their own terms. Odds are you’ll end up with a really well-adjusted adult. And you can join a senior softball league and relive your glory days.

By the way, this also applies to other activities such as music, dance, and, sad to say, academics.

Let’s let kids be kids while they still can, before they enter adulthood and have to deal with the problems we all face. Do not overburden them with our pre-set ideals. Give them the chance to find out who they are, not who they think we want/expect them to be. They will thank us later.

Dr. Stephen J. Ezzo is a pediatrician at Novant Health Matthews Children’s Clinic  and immediate past president of the Mecklenburg County Medical Society.